Tencent Technology News reported on July 17 that Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company, last week sent Richard Branson, its founder and CEO, to the edge of space, successfully completing the first manned space flight of its spacecraft. After the celebration, Virgin Galactic president Mike Mosse gave an exclusive interview to the media, revealing many operational details and the company’s plans from test flight to commercial flight.
The following is a summary of the interview:
Q: first of all, can you tell me what else your company needs to test? When do you expect to complete the test flight phase?
Moses: we are now conducting a series of test flights, and Branson’s flight is only the first time. This represents a change from more classic and traditional envelope testing (focusing on aerodynamics, trajectory and control quality) to more operational testing. We are verifying the spaceship experience, training procedures, and control quality The hardware for the passengers and what they’re going through.
Therefore, we arranged a series of test flights, specifically three, which not only demonstrated the key product milestones and functions, but also gave us time to iterate, develop and optimize certain spaceship experiences. But as usual, it’s just a theoretical timetable. The schedule and number of people will depend on the test results. Therefore, if all goes well, we think that after three test flights, we should be able to find out where we need to adjust and make improvements according to what we have learned.
According to the results we got after Branson and the other crew came back from the last flight, you know, we have some work to do, but everything is going well. Now, we plan to carry out these test flights during the summer and the end of the summer, and then we will be ready to enter the “modification phase”, as we announced in the previous earnings conference call, we will upgrade our aircraft carriers and spaceships to prepare them for commercial operation.
The main focus during this period is to see what allows us to increase our flight frequency. Now in the test, we are flying at a fairly slow rate because we are checking everything carefully. We want to start getting rid of that, as we know, so we already know that we want to make some improvements to achieve that. We don’t have a specific timetable for when these tests and improvements will end.
Q: you mentioned that the astronauts have not been asked about the experience. I hope you get more information from Branson and others now. Do you have any substantive feedback to share?
Moses: we are in the middle of all the feedback and reporting. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of data to deal with. In some cases, this data is actually all the pictures taken by the 16 cameras on our spaceship. Let them all synchronize, see where and what happened, and combine it with on-site notes, newsletters and the accompanying audio materials. We’re certainly gathering information, but I don’t think there’s anything I’m ready to disclose right now. We will keep in touch with you.
Q: you mentioned in the “refitting stage” that unity is just a production prototype. As the first batch of products to leave the factory, can you tell me if it needs special maintenance?
Moses: there’s nothing special about unity that needs to be maintained during design or construction. But as a testing tool, we pay a lot of extra attention to it. We conduct very in-depth inspections, with both regular and immediate feedback of problems, and we may test and explore them to ensure that we really understand them and that there are no unknowns, such as the performance of the system under low temperature, load and pressure. We will pay close attention.
We made a series of measurements to evaluate its performance based on its design. If we are close to the edge of any envelope test, we will do additional checks to verify that our modeling and prediction are correct. So, at this point, it’s very similar to the way you develop maintenance for a new aircraft, and you build a detailed plan. Then, when you use it, you start to be conservative based on your positive feedback.
But overall, unity does get a lot of extra attention, and the next generation of aircraft will be partially redesigned based on it. We have learned many lessons.
Q: you said before that Virgin Galactic is expected to make hundreds of space flights every year, at least in theory.
Moses: Yes, the unity spacecraft will make hundreds of flights. We’ve tested this for a life cycle we’ve designed, and then we’ll continue to test it for longer. However, there will be some restrictions. You know, we’re going to cycle 10000 tests, and when we get close to the end of the test, we’re going to cycle again, and we’re going to add more. You know, there are not many parts whose life span has been dramatically shortened by “falling off a cliff.”.
Q: you mentioned that you will make some improvements in the future spaceship or production technology. Can you tell us something? Like the size and weight of a wheel, what’s the difference?
Moses: we’re already working on the transition from major factory assembly to ground testing. All the systems are in place, and now they’re going to run integrated ground tests, where you can basically run computer systems, flight control systems. After all, you’re still on the ground, not ready to fly. But we’re doing comprehensive testing.
In terms of improvement, when we design the structure, you can think of it as a skeleton under the skin. We optimize and move the ribs on those bones or pillars to the place with the highest load. Unity is based on the original design intent of scaled composite, and flight tests show that sometimes the load is not entirely expected. There is a lot of extra weight in unity to explain this load; Imagine being able to optimize the structure and put it where it needs to be.
So things like that, let me optimize my inspection schedule. There are also some very simple things, now that we have new access panels, we know when we need them. In unity, we have to add facts after they happen. This makes the inspection time shorter, and we can add it to the design. We have made quite a lot of similar modifications. Although they are quite small, they have a great impact on the maintainability of the spacecraft.
The next stage will be delta class spacecraft, and we will make changes in manufacturability. Unity, inspire and imagine are still equivalent to one-time hand-made spacecraft, but if we want to build more than a dozen or more spacecraft to achieve the goal of 400 flights per year, we need to ensure that they can be manufactured in a short time range and at a lower price. So the next generation of design will contain a lot of these things.
Q: This is actually one of the things I want to talk about, which is how do you get the reliability and rhythm of your business operations you want? Obviously, more spaceships are just part of it, but you know, there may be expansion of ground operations or crew for better maintenance and so on.
Moses: Yes, of course. We will have a lot of spaceships and need to schedule them, which will enable us to deal with any emergency, such as bad weather. Then it’s hiring more people, who need to work 24 hours a day. These people are professionals. They can be in charge of a certain spacecraft or they can only focus on one task.
I think we’re going to keep going step by step: we’re not going to try to get to that high speed in the first place, we’re going to accelerate. That’s what unity is going to achieve in 2022, so that we can explore these operating rhythms and see how we can manipulate them when we have more ships.
You know, it’s a great business model, right? But in the next few years, I didn’t pay much attention to unity’s eight, 10 or 12 flights. I mean, in terms of revenue, it hasn’t changed much. But in terms of operations, it’s an important step for us, so we want to be cautious about how to move along this path.
Q: is there going to be a big change in your flight plan?
Moses: to some extent, it’s related to what we talked about at the beginning of the Q & A, from the test phase to the operational preparation phase. In addition, we will continue to optimize the profiles that have been determined now, including the flight trajectory of pilots and the technologies they use, but we will not make major changes. These are almost all based on the actual flight results. The airspeed we’re in, the angle we’re in, the altitude we’re going to reach, the load we’re carrying, are all locked variables, and you can’t do much to change that equation.
With the advent of imagine, there will be some clear trajectory changes, because it will have more passenger capacity, which means that its performance will be slightly different. We just need to verify it. But for the most part, the physical nature of the equation determines what you can do. Roughly speaking, that’s why we could only carry four passengers in the first place. We can change that. We do plan to reduce the weight of the spacecraft, but we still need to focus on the fleet we are building and ensure that we have a fleet that can be used for a long time（ Tencent technology reviser / Jinlu)